The professor reaching for the stars

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With his Elvis side burns, big sweaters and wild-eyed enthusiasm, Professor Colin Pillinger seemed to be the perfect head for Britain's somewhat eccentric, on-the-cheap, first foray into space.

With his Elvis side burns, big sweaters and wild-eyed enthusiasm, Professor Colin Pillinger seemed to be the perfect head for Britain's somewhat eccentric, on-the-cheap, first foray into space.

When he appeared seven years ago with his Bristol accent to tell us Britain could be the first country to find life on Mars he was the archetypal nutty professor. But his "vision and determination" - as described by Sir Patrick Moore - soon had the country convinced Beagle II could actually work.

That enthusiasm began as a child when the now 60-year-old head of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at the Open University first came across Dan Dare andlistened to Journey Into Space on the radio. Hestudied chemistry at Swansea.

In 1969, the space race peaked with the first manned-trip to the moon and Professor Pillinger - then a junior chemist - was invited by Bristol University to study moon rock. He established himself as one of Europe's leading space scientists.

In 1997, when he heard the European Space Agency was sending an orbiter to Mars in 2003, he seized on the chance to add a small landing probe to the project.

He came up with a cheap design and worked hard to raise the £50 million cash. He said: "If we followed the proper routes we'd never have even been going to Mars. We got the steamroller rolling."



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